Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

In one of Alfred Hitchcock's most suspenseful thrillers (and his personal favorite) - the cynical, film-noirish, war-time film was shot on location in the small, story-book town of Santa Rosa, California - a representative place of wholesomeness, law-and order, and middle-American values within a family. The script by Thornton Wilder (plus Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville, and New Yorker writer Sally Benson) was based upon an unpublished, 6-page short story outline titled "Uncle Charlie" by Gordon McDonell - the source of the film's sole Oscar nomination. It was remade as the film-noirish Step Down to Terror (1958) by director Harry Keller.

In the film's main plot, Uncle Charlie, a psychotic killer whose namesake niece, an adoring teenager-heroine also named Charlie, was emotionally excited by news of the arrival of her worldly uncle. Young Charlie has wished for change and excitement in her boring life, and was psychically linked to her favorite uncle - but then she slowly began over time to intuitively suspect that her beloved relative was a wanted mass murderer who had brought dark corruption with him. She used clues including a newspaper article and an engraved ring stolen from a woman he had murdered. When Uncle Charlie came to recognize her suspicions about his evil, murderous secrets, her life became endangered.

The many themes in the film included a belief in superstition (and good and bad fortunes), telepathy, domestic menace, and the preponderance of opposites (doubles or twinning).

  • during the titles sequence that included views of Gay Nineties bourgeois couples dancing, the tune of Franz Lehár's "Merry Widow Waltz" (in Dimitri Tiomkin's Original Score) played as a thematic leitmotif [Note: A real-life mass murderer in the mid-1920s named Earle Leonard Nelson, dubbed with the macabre nickname "Merry Widow," strangled middle-aged women until he was hanged in 1928]
  • the opening sequence introduced the chilling, twisted, devious homicidal character of Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) - the "Merry Widow Murderer" - evil personified from the very first scenes, as he laid on a bed in a Dracula-like vampirish position; he knew that two men were looking for him: "They aren't exactly friends of mine. They've never seen me. That's odd, isn't it?", and then dared them from his window to locate his evil guilt: "What do you know? You're bluffing. You've nothing on me"
Uncle Charlie (and Young "Charlie") Similarly Lying on Bed in Two Different Locations
  • Uncle Charlie elusively disappeared and fled from Philadelphia, after committing a third murder of a rich widow by strangulation; he suspected that his apprehension by police was imminent, and schemed to drop out of sight by sending a telegram about his visit and arrival to his adoring, middle-class relatives, including his unsuspecting, talkative, oblivious older sister Mrs. Joseph (Emma) Newton (Patricia Collinge) in California
  • members of the Newton family included precocious teenaged daughter "Charlie" (Charlotte) Newton (Teresa Wright), Charlie's symbiotic namesake and his young favorite niece, two additional younger children: congenial Roger (Charles Bates) and 9 year-old, spectacle-wearing, bookish Ann (Edna May Wonacott), and Emma's bank clerk husband Joseph Newton (Henry Travers); Young Charlie was introduced lying fully dressed in the same supine position on her bed as her Uncle Charlie in the first scene

Joseph Newton (Henry Travers)

Mrs. Joseph (Emma) Newton (Patricia Collinge)

Ann (Edna May Wonacott)
  • Uncle Charlie's train arrived in the clean, quiet, small and traditional, bright town of Santa Rosa, California, as black funereal smoke belched into the sky and a dark, tarnishing shadow was cast over everything to symbolize his ominous arrival; his coming into the town, walking first hunched over and with a walking stick, suddenly changed - he was walking erect, smoking a phallic cigar, bringing sexual tension and hiding his proclivities toward sexual violence and incestual interest in the Newton's family niece; during Charlie's visit, "Charlie" offered her room to her Uncle
  • the first evening following dinner after Uncle Charlie had presented gifts to everyone, he met privately in the kitchen with the elated young "Charlie" who mentioned telepathic twin-ness similarities and affinities between her congenial and suave Uncle Charlie and herself - she was named for the uncle she idolized: ("I can't explain it but you came here and Mother's so happy and I'm glad that she named me after you and that she thinks we're both alike. I think we are too. I know it. It would spoil things if you should give me anything....we're not just an uncle and a niece, we're something else. I know you...we're sorta like twins, don't you see?"); she placed her hand trustingly in his as he 'wed' his twin with his gift of an emerald ring; she was overjoyed, but Uncle Charlie became apprehensive when she noticed its initial engravings: ("'TS from BM' - those must be someone's initials") and refused to return it
  • as young Charlie returned to the dining room, visions of the waltzing couples in the ballroom from the beginning of the film (and from the idealized past) were superimposed over him - mysteriously marking and linking him - along with the humming of the tune of the Merry Widow Waltz
  • the film was enriched by the running dialogue between Joseph and his neighbor and brother-in-law Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn in his film debut), who morbidly debated about the best techniques to commit the 'perfect murder' - both were mystery buffs who read pulp murder-mystery crime stories
  • later in the evening, Uncle Charlie suspiciously absconded with a page from the family's newspaper, possibly because of an offensive article; in his room later in the evening, young Charlie spotted her uncle's coat pocket bulging with part of the evening's newspaper and called him out; he grabbed and gripped her wrists tightly, and violently wrenched down on them - causing her fearful shock, pain, and anguish: "Uncle Charlie, you're hurting me"; he excused his behavior by claiming the paper had a gossip article about a friend
  • a possible explanation for Charlie's aberrant behavior was that he had suffered a terrible bicycle accident and skull fracture that nearly killed him when he was a child; the life-altering incident utterly changed him forever, and he would regularly "get into mischief"
  • as he had proposed the night before, Uncle Charlie visited the local bank to transfer some money ("thirty or forty thousand, just to start things off right") from the East and put it into Joe's bank after opening up an account; at the bank, a middle-aged woman Mrs. Potter (Frances Carson) flirtatiously admitted to being a rich widow (a "merry widow"?) who delighted in spending her late husband's money

Uncle Charlie at the Bank Depositing $40K Into a New Account

Mrs. Potter (Frances Carson) - Uncle Charlie's Rich Widow Acquaintance - A New Possible Victim
  • at first, young Charlie was fascinated by her uncle's wit, urbane and worldly sophistication - but then a "shadow of a doubt" slowly began to emerge; the first suspicions about Uncle Charlie arose when he vehemently refused to take the government's national poll survey and have his photograph taken by interviewer Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and photographer Fred Saunders (Wallace Ford) [Note: it was soon revealed to a stunned, young Charlie that both Graham and Saunders were police detectives investigating Uncle Charlie as a murder suspect]
  • a cat-and-mouse game soon developed between the two Charlies, that turned out to reveal that they were diametrically-opposed opposites
  • later that evening, young Charlie rushed to the town's Free Public Library just as it was closing at nine pm, to view the contents of an article that Uncle Charlie had suspiciously cut out of her father's newspaper; in the reading room, she reacted dramatically -- her eyes widened as she found damning evidence that her Uncle was the "Merry Widow Murderer -- Strangler of Three Rich Women" - and that he was the object of a nationwide search
The Town Library Sequence - Young Charlie's Discovery of Her Uncle's True Identity
  • she also put two-and-two together - the initials engraved on the back of the emerald ring given as a gift to her by Uncle Charlie matched the initials of the murderer's third widowed victim (Thelma Schenley (TS) from husband Bruce Matthewson (BM)) - it was the film's major turning point - emphasized by the camera's overhead shot isolating her at a distance from behind - among the dark shadows
  • in a key dinner table speech the next evening (staged as practice for a speech he had promised to give to the town's womens' club), a contemptuous, misogynistic monologue was delivered by Uncle Charlie - about his hatred for rich, lazily fat, detestable, middle-aged widows; he was viewed in profile for most of the speech, as the camera moved even closer: "...Women keep busy in towns like this. In the cities it's different. The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. Then they die and leave their money to their wives. Their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women"
  • midway, when young Charlie objected to his degrading assessment and characterization: ("They're alive! They're human beings!"), Uncle Charlie turned toward the camera, in gigantic close-up and coldly asked: "Are they? Are they, Charlie? Are they human or are they fat wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?"
  • slightly later after she dashed outside from the table and was pursued by Uncle Charlie, the two entered the nearby 'Til-Two cocktail lounge - a smoke-filled, noisy and dark bar populated by war-time sailors and less-than-respectable, downtrodden ladies both inside and out; the two Charlies sat at one of the booths for an ominous discussion; at first, they faced each other as the mentally-disturbed Uncle Charlie began to act aggressively toward his niece: ("...Now look, Charlie, Something's come between us. I don't want that to happen. Why, we're old friends. More than that. We're like twins. You said so yourself...."); she took the emerald ring from her pocket and returned it to him by placing it on the table, as their drink order was brought
  • during their booth conversation, he told her how she hadn't experienced - as he had - how the world was a living hell filled with foul swine within houses; he began lecturing her, accused her of knowing nothing about the real world, and confronted her about what she knew about him: "You think you know something, don't you? You think you're the clever little girl that knows something. There's so much you don't know. So much. What do you know, really? You're just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there's nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day and at night you sleep your untroubled, ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares! Or did I, or was it a silly inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie! Use your wits. Learn something"
  • as she approached closer to him and learned the truth, she realized that he was aware of her knowledge and suspicions; she had to decide whether she should reveal her findings to the authorities or protect her family
  • after her confrontation in the seedy bar with her uncle, she departed as they continued to discuss Uncle Charlie's future in town; she reluctantly agreed to not say anything if he promised to leave town in a few days, to avoid any scandal and to protect her mother from knowing that her younger brother was a murderer
  • the film's plot was turned upside-down when a noon broadcast heard by Charlie's father reported the death of another Merry Widow Murderer suspect in the state of Maine; Joe and Herb were blissfully ignorant of the criminal murderer in their own midst; Jack Graham also notified Charlie that their search and job had ended; he also felt compelled to tell her of his love: "I love you, Charlie. I love you terribly. I know it's no time to tell you now and I'm sorry. Do you mind?" [Note: The other murder suspect, actually innocent, died a horrible death at an airport when he was fleeing from police and ran into a plane propeller.]
  • Uncle Charlie was relieved, but still felt he wanted to remain in Santa Rosa, but that meant that he had to eliminate young Charlie - he made two failed 'murder' attempts to kill her - by a tampered-with broken step on the back stairs, and by a malfunctioning garage door paired with toxic fumes of carbon monoxide poisoning
  • after a clash of wills with her Uncle, while everyone else attended Uncle Charlie's Women's Club lecture, young Charlie frantically searched for the allegedly misplaced emerald ring (that she had given back to her Uncle) in his room; once everyone returned from the talk, in an intense tracking shot from her Uncle Charlie's POV, young Charlie was seen gliding down the stair railing, with the incriminating, offensive, condemning object (the emerald ring) framed in a gigantic closeup on her right hand; Uncle Charlie surrendered to her by announcing to everyone that he was departing on the train for San Francisco the next day (on the same train as widowed Mrs. Potter, his next victim)
  • after farewells at the station, Uncle Charlie held back his young niece Charlie from exiting his train car; in the thrilling concluding scene on the moving train in the platform between train cars, there was a struggle between them as the train began to move faster; he seized her as she panicked and tried to break away. His face was absolutely monstrous as he advanced on her; she struggled into the space between the cars, while he gripped her mouth and throat and opened the door to fling her onto the tracks. He explained his homicidal intentions: "I've got to do this, Charlie, so long as you know what you do about me." He twisted her around in his tight embrace, as she grappled with him. He lifted her off the ground - her legs dangled in the air. Her black-gloved hand gripped the door handle and then lost its hold
Uncle Charlie's Failed Murder Attempt of Young Charlie on Train - Death of Uncle Charlie
  • both watched the passing blur of landscape and tracks (two parallel railway tracks became one), delaying the inevitable plunge into death. Uncle Charles prepared her by waiting for the right moment of lethal speed and exhilaration (and sexual receptiveness), educating her to the monstrous world that he earlier said she must learn - as his twin: "Not yet, Charlie, let it get a little faster! Just a little faster! Faster! Now!" She twisted and reversed positions on him, upset his balance and pushed him away - he fell headlong into the path of an oncoming, speeding train on an adjacent track. Her act freed him from his (and her) nightmares and from his curse to kill - she fulfilled her earlier threat ("I'll kill you myself"), aiding her uncle to embrace death
  • the image dissolved to the recurrent one of dancing couples twirling to the Merry Widow Waltz

Uncle Charlie: The Suspected 'Merry Widow Murderer' Pursued by Two Men in Philadelphia

"Charlie" (Charlotte) Newton (Teresa Wright)

Black Smoke Signaling Charlie's Arrival

"Uncle Charlie" Arriving in Santa Rosa, CA

Young Charlie Greeting her Uncle at the Train Station

Uncle Charlie's Gift of an Incriminating, Engraved Emerald Ring to Young Charlie

The Film's Leitmotif: "The Merry Widow" Waltz, With Dancing Couples

Joe's Neighbor Herbert Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) - Murder Mystery Buff

Young Charlie Briefly Assaulted by her Uncle Charlie For Noticing Stolen Newspaper Pages

Government Survey Taker - Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) - Eventual Love Interest for Young Charlie

Saunders - Snapping an Unpermitted Picture of Uncle Charlie

Jack Graham Revealing Himself to Young Charlie As a Detective Trailing Uncle Charlie as a Murder Suspect

"Horrible, faded, fat greedy women!"

"Are they? Are they, Charlie?"

Close-up of Uncle Charlie Viewed in Profile During His Hateful Dinner Table Speech About Detested Widows

Ominous Discussion Between Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie in a Bar Booth

Uncle Charlie Promising to Leave Town in a Few Days

Clash of Wills: The Tracking Shot of The Incriminating Emerald Ring on Young Charlie's Finger

The Struggle Between Them On the Train Platform Between Cars


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